“Ýou need the fingertips of a safe cracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist.”
--Jim Bouton, RHP, 1962-1970, 1978
“You’re kind of an alien out there.”
--R.A. Dickey, RHP, 2001-Present
“When it’s not done well, it’s really bad.”
--Charlie Hough, RHP, 1970-1994
As the game is currently played, there’s not a lot of room for quirkiness or variety in baseball. The guys who are the strongest, hit the ball the farthest, throw it the hardest and run the fastest are the ones fans come to see and teams shell out millions to have play for their franchise.
Then, there are these guys.
These are the frumpy, graying, deeply flawed MLB players who look more like they should be working in the cubicle next to you than on a professional baseball field. They can’t run, they can’t hit and they haven’t thrown over 80 MPH since high school.
They are the knuckleballers.
I had the opportunity this past weekend to attend the Boston Independent Film Festival’s screening of the movie Knuckleball!, a documentary directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg that focuses on the travails of pitchers R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield over the course of the 2011 season.
Along the way we hear from many of the game’s legendary knuckleballers, pitchers who for one reason or another were forced to master the art of this unconventional and erratic pitch. And it really is an art.
The perfect knuckleball must strike a delicate balance between finger pressure and precision in the arm motion. A split nail or a misstep by even a centimeter makes the difference between a baffled swing-and-miss and a 400-plus foot home run.
The notion of survival and preserving the pitcher’s career is often the driving force behind a pitcher adopting the knuckleball, and the film does a nice job showing the level of desperation many of these men reached before fully committing to joining the knuckleballer fraternity.
Wakefield was a failing first base prospect with the Pirates when a coach noticed him throwing knucklers during spring training; Wakefield began his conversion to a pitcher shortly thereafter. R.A. Dickey was a middling reliever who had never been given a guaranteed contract during his entire career before he discovered the knuckler while pitching for the Texas Rangers.
When watching the film, the camaraderie between the different generations of players in this brotherhood of the bizarre becomes quickly apparent. During a road trip, Dickey breaks down game film with Hough. Wakefield, Phil Niekro, Dickey and Hough all go golfing together and talk about their experiences on the mound.
In this era where pitchers are starting to look more like power lifters, there is a bit of dramatic tension built into the movie over the idea that we could be looking at the last of a dying breed. With Wakefield’s retirement this year, Dickey is the last remaining knuckleballer in MLB, and while there are a few hurlers experimenting with the pitch in the minor leagues, their arrivals are not imminent.
An unfortunate offshoot of the modern game’s stats-driven nature is that teams and managers no longer have the patience to let someone like Dickey or Wakefield develop. In his first career start in 1992, Wakefield earned a complete game win while striking out 10; however, he also walked five and threw 146 pitches. Quite simply, that isn’t allowed to happen anymore.
There is more than a hint of sadness as the movie draws to a close, and it feels like we’re watching the slow demise of a rare type of baseball player. A vestige of a bygone era, the knuckleball is no longer a viable component of the game due to the pitch’s inconsistency and the patience it demands of both the manager and front office.
Teams will now always choose the instant gratification of a hard thrower like Aroldis Chapman over the long, very slow burn of a Wakefield or Dickey. The amazing hot streaks knuckleballers often go on are matched only by their equally lengthy cold streaks, and most organizations simply don’t have the stomach for it anymore.
The movie does a nice job not casting any kind of judgment on this seemingly imminent extinction, though. The focus, rather, is on the players and the way that this one pitch saved them from obscurity and revived their careers.
Though it may not be around forever, the knuckleball will always hold an important place in the history of baseball. The filmmakers did a wonderful job capturing the characters who brought the pitch to life on the field.
Ultimately, the film shows us that the knuckleball is more than a pitch. It is a perfect reflection of the endearing quirkiness that makes baseball America’s pastime, a redeemer of lost pitching souls.
Click here to visit the film's official website.